I’ve been cogitating all week on the connection between war and the lust for land and the way we perceive people of other races and ethnicities.
What do governments or peoples do when they prepare to go to war against another nation or people? They try to make it seem justified, just like humans always do when they want their own way.
The drumbeat of war starts, with stories showing the negatives about the other side. Stories of how vicious, brutal, depraved, treacherous, uncivilized, and different the other is become part of the propaganda. The process of distorting the humanity of the other cranks up.
“See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.”
George W. Bush, 43rd President of the United States
To make it possible for soldiers to kill another human being takes that process. They cannot be seen as human, with families who love them, as people capable of humor, kindness, generosity, nobility, or love. Likewise, taking the land of another and exploiting them also requires dehumanizing them. So the names come. Chink. Gook. Jap. Wop. Dago. Nigger. Greaser. Raghead. And the labels: lazy, savage, greedy, shifty, scrawny, tricky, dirty.
Prosperity and success get equated with being superior. Poverty and being a victim are marks of inferiority in such a world view.
Repeating the names and slurs, having them reinforced by friends and colleagues, build a deep contempt for the other and a sense of their own superiority, a superiority that gives them a sense of entitlement, that imposing their will on others is justified. Many of the soldiers then are able to shoot another human being and kill or enslave them, and sometimes, too often, to commit atrocities in the process.
Post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers and suicidal tendencies have been linked in many circumstances to the guilt of killing others, especially when victims are innocent civilians or when soldiers bear guilt over their own brutality.
The continents and peoples most victimized by European conquest were on the receiving end of the names and slurs. The peoples of Africa, North and South America, China, and India were some targeted for conquest. The legacy of that history is that those same groups continue to a greater or lesser extent to have been saddled with the derogatory labels into perpetuity.
Literature and art certainly perpetuated the stereotypes. But with the advent of film and television, the stereotypes in the Eurocentrism that is so prevalent seem to have been invested with an even greater dark power.
As Robert Stam and Ella Shohat point out in a chapter written for Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader (edited by D.T. Goldberg, 1994),
“Eurocentrism minimizes the West’s oppressive practices by regarding them as contingent, accidental, exceptional. Western colonialism, slave trading, and imperialism are not seen as fundamental causes of the West’s disproportionate power…Eurocentrism sanitizes Western history while patronizing and even demonizing the non-West; it thinks of itself in terms of its noblest achievements – science, progress, humanism – but of the non-West in terms of its deficiencies, real or imagined.”
Racism is the bitter legacy of the sins of our fathers, it appears. It won’t go away anytime soon. Not as long as we associate light and white with purity and goodness and darkness with sin and evil.
Even as I write this conclusion, my eyes land on my own words above and see that I actually used the words dark power to refer to evil. It makes me aware again of how being washed from birth to the present in this “cultural stew” creeps into our unconscious minds and permeates our thinking, even when we try to confront it.
It is so hard to recognize the truth of our own evil, so easy for us to justify and excuse ourselves – all the while judging the sins of others. We don’t want to see our own actions or that of our government (or a President) as evil.
I have the conviction that the only way to ever free oneself from the racism, sexism, and other stereotypes of our society requires such focused awareness and such intense concentrated attention to guarding against the least trace.of bigotry that I despair of being able to fully achieve it. All I can do will be to try to catch my failures, repudiate them, and hope for help in rooting them out of my life.
I wish it were possible to be the person I want to be. But if I could, I wouldn’t need redemption and I wouldn’t have the blessing of experiencing unconditional love and forgiveness. After Maundy Thursday, there is Easter!